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By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian

The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, said on Wednesday that Armenia is making progress towards meeting the organization’s democratic standards but should do more to become a “member of the European family.”

Wrapping up a two-day visit to Yerevan, he urged the Armenian authorities to unconditionally abolish the death penalty, seek a quick solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, combat endemic corruption and ensure that the upcoming elections are democratic.

“I would say that Armenia is on the right track,” Schwimmer told a news conference, speaking about the fulfilment of commitments assumed by the country when it joined the Council of Europe in January 2001. “Of course, there are several obligations that have still to be fully honored and some time frames are not being fully observed. But we have seen the good will of the Armenian government and parliament to honor their commitments to the Council of Europe.”

In an apparent reference to a new Armenian criminal code which allows executions under some circumstances, Schwimmer stressed the need for a “full abolition” of capital punishment. He said: “This is one of the most important commitments which I hope Armenia will honor very soon and without any reservation.”

The issue was discussed on Tuesday during Schwimmer’s meeting with the leadership of the Armenian parliament and representatives of its factions. Most of them voted last month for a special clause stipulating that individuals convicted of serious crimes before the new code’s entry into force can be sentenced to death. The clause is primarily directed against the five gunmen who murdered eight senior officials in the October 1999 shock attack on the parliament.

The Council of Europe has repeatedly voiced its opposition to their possible execution, saying that there must be no exceptions to one of its fundamental principles. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL on Monday that the Armenian government accepts the demand and disapproves the parliament’s stance.

President Robert Kocharian likewise told Schwimmer on Tuesday that his administration is “determined” to meet all conditions for its membership in the Council. “We have made our choice and it is irreversible,” he said.

Schwimmer also said that the freedom and fairness of the approaching local, presidential and parliamentary elections will be “crucial for the democratic future of the country.” “I definitely expect from a member country of the Council of Europe to hold the elections in a free and fair manner,” he said, adding that the organization will closely monitor the polls scheduled for next October, March and May respectively.

Schwimmer further urged the authorities to fight against rampant corruption, reflecting Western concerns about the scale of the problem in Armenia. The Kocharian administration has been under international pressure to tackle bribery, nepotism and other widespread corrupt practices for the past several years. But few effective steps have been taken so far.

Turning to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Schwimmer cited the example of Western European nations that have laid to rest their centuries-old conflicts to build the world’s most prosperous political and economic grouping. He said a speedy resolution of the Karabakh dispute is the main “precondition for regional cooperation” in the South Caucasus, an idea strongly advocated by various European structures.

“Borders should not be as important as they have been in the past,” he said, pointing to the European Union’s successful experience with inter-state integration. “Above all, they should never be the subject of disputes between countries.”

Oskanian, who also spoke at the news conference, reaffirmed Armenia’s readiness to engage in joint economic projects with Azerbaijan before a Karabakh settlement. But official Baku has repeatedly ruled that out, arguing that economic cooperation would prolong and legitimize Armenian control of Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani lands.
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